How Taiwan combats disinformation campaigns through civic initiatives

Illustration courtesy Taiwan Factcheck Center (tfc-taiwan.org.tw)

Taiwan has long been troubled by misinformation extending from its media practices, and since 2018, the island is faced with new waves of disinformation campaigns originated from China. However, the new trend triggered the island’s civil society to respond with civic initiatives that aim at tackling the problem.

OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS, MISINFORMATION AND DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS have become one of the hottest topics in the journalism community, with every news organization dedicating a considerable amount of resources to unveil the impact of false information on every aspect of our lives. 

In Taiwan, a young democracy with around 23.7 million people, false information has long been a threat to its vibrant civil society. Before the global discussion about disinformation reached its peak after the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Taiwan has been troubled by its own problem about misinformation, mainly extending from the poor quality of its media. 

According to Chiaoning Su, an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Oakland University in the United States, Taiwan’s problems with misinformation are mainly caused by the uneven quality of journalism. However, since the nationwide election in November 2018, the problem has slowly transitioned from misinformation to disinformation. 

“Following the election in 2018, Taiwan’s civil society began to notice the vicious and political nature of the disinformation campaigns, and a lot of these large scale campaigns originate from China, with an intention to divide Taiwan’s civil society,” Su said. 

Another goal of these disinformation campaigns is often to amplify pro-China propaganda in Taiwan. However, the reason why some of the disinformation campaigns became successful enough to influence the election was because some groups and individuals in Taiwan were helping to disseminate those messages, according to Su. 

In response to the threat posed by disinformation campaigns originated from China, several citizen-initiated groups emerged to focus on identifying and analyzing disinformation campaigns. 

In an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalist, Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, revealed that the Taiwanese government has developed a system, in conjunction with messaging app Line and Facebook, called Notice and Public Notice. 

According to Tang, the system is similar to spam, where users can forward suspicious disinformation to a bot, and the bot will flag the post as disinformation. “We are reaching similar agreements with other social media platforms as well,” said Tang. “They are all on board to implement the ‘Notice and Public Notice’ system, which is definitely not a notice and takedown system.” 

Another important institution that has been leading Taiwan’s fight to combat disinformation is the Taiwan Fact Check Center, which began operation in August 2018. The center has debunked dozens of disinformation campaigns, including one that falsely claimed that vote rigging took place during Taiwan’s presidential election in January 2020. That particular operation won the center a global fact-checking award in June. 

Dr. Chiaoning Su pointed out that the establishment of these citizen-initiated fact-checking initiatives or nonprofit organizations like the Taiwan Fact Check Center shows that Taiwan’s civil society is becoming more aware about the threat stemming from disinformation campaigns. 

“Since China has been trying to meddle with Taiwan’s domestic politics through disinformation campaigns, Taiwan’s civil society and government become very proactive about setting up fact-checking mechanisms to combat these threats,” Su said. “These moves reflect Taiwanese people’s desire to pursue facts, but they also show Taiwanese people’s desire to safeguard the island’s sovereignty and democracy.” 

According to Su, Taiwan’s government is now planning to incorporate knowledge related to disinformation campaigns into school curriculums, and they also plan to establish more partnership with social media platforms to enhance their abilities in identifying and preventing disinformation campaigns from creating damages in Taiwan. 

“There are many ways to defend Taiwan against disinformation campaigns, including passing relevant legislation and creating more civic initiatives through partnerships with social media platforms or civil society groups,” Su explained. “However, the last line of defense is in every citizen’s mind. I believe the last mile of Taiwan’s efforts to combat disinformation is about how to equip citizens the knowledge about identifying and rejecting disinformation campaigns.” 

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